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Identity Unraveled

A great deal of spiritual wisdom, in one way or another, deals with our universal human tendency to forget who we really are, and to whom we truly belong. A primary task of religion, therefore, is to remind us, and keep reminding us, of who we really are as beloved children of God. It is the job of religion, which literally means to reconnect, to help us find our true selves— stripping away all the other names, all the other labels, and all the other identities that we put onto ourselves so that we can live more fully into who God has created us to be. One of my favorite quotes is from a second century saint named Iranaeus, who said that “the glory of god is seen in the human being fully alive.” Well, I believe we are most fully alive when we have discovered our true selves and are able to live into that identity.

So how do we discover, or perhaps more accurately, rediscover, our true selves? And if there is such a thing as a true self, does that mean there is such a thing as a false self?

Well, theologian Richard Rohr argues that there is indeed such a thing as a false-self, though he clarifies that our false selves are not necessarily all bad. It’s just that our false-self identities, or what I’m going to call our “small-i” identities, don’t go nearly far enough in helping us understand who we are truly called to be as people of faith. Our false self, he says, is based on identities that we construct for ourselves early on in life—identities that are often concerned with success, status and belonging. Examples of these kinds of “small-i” identities might be things like Protestant, Catholic, Congregationalist, American, immigrant, millennial, baby boomer, democrat or republican. The construction of these kinds of “small-i” identities can have positive effects, such as helping us feel a sense of belonging to a group, and having a strong sense of personal identity and ego. But it can also have debilitative effects on our overall spiritual health, locking us into “us verses them” mentalities and prompting us towards attitudes of exclusion rather than a spirituality of radical inclusion. The trick, perhaps, is not to utterly reject our false self and all the various “small-i” identities it is built upon, but rather to expand beyond it and to dig deeper underneath it so that we have a broader understanding of our “capital I” identity as beloved children of a God who is bigger and more expansive than any of our particular labels, and who embraces all people—no matter what various identities they claim—under the one banner of universal love.

This was, I believe, a particular focus of Jesus’ ministry on earth. He was constantly challenging the ‘us vs them’ identities of his time— reaching out across boundaries and barriers, and inviting all people together under an expansive spirituality that recognized the sacred worth of every person. The apostle Paul talks about this more expansive spirituality in his letter to the Galatians, which we heard from this morning. He speaks of some of the most serious us/them divisions of his time— slave vs free, gentile vs Jew, and male vs female— and claims that in Christ, those “small-i” identities fall away, or at least, become less important, as we are drawn into one body through the unifying power of the Spirit. This is a theme that Paul comes back to again and again in his writings. In his letter to the Ephesians, for example he writes that Christ has brought down the dividing wall between us and that in Christ, all hostilities between “us and them" are destroyed. As an old hymn says, “in Christ there is no east or west, in him no south or north, but one great fellowship of love that spreads throughout the earth.”

Perhaps it’s not too hard to see how this all becomes applicable in our particular time and place. We are, without a doubt, very divided in our country at this moment. There is a dividing wall between democrats and republicans, for example, that seems to pulse with hostility, anger and mistrust. If it is true that Christ tears down the dividing walls between us and if it is true that in Christ we all are part of a more expansive identity, what then is our call, as Christians, in this divisive moment?

To answer that question, I want to bring in our reading from the prophet Isaiah, and there are several points here that I want to emphasize. First, Isaiah calls for an end to blaming and speaking ill of each other. “Remove the pointing of the finger and the speaking of evil” he says. Rather, he says, focus your attention on feeding the hungry and comforting the afflicted. In other words, make poverty and injustice the enemy, rather than each other. Do that, he says, and God’s light will rise from the darkness and a clear path from God will emerge. I think this is really important for us to think about. Instead of leaning into the us/them divisions of our time and blaming the other side for all our problems, perhaps we need to focus more of our attention on those who are hurting the most—those who are hungry and poor and homeless, those who are marginalized, ignored and forgotten, those who are suffering, sick and afflicted. This not only gives us a common goal, but also helps us transcend our differences in order to help others. And this leads directly to the second point I want to address, which comes at the very end of the passage when Isaiah says that if we do these things— if we feed the hungry and comfort the afflicted— “your ancient ruins shall be rebuilt… and you shall be called repairers of the breach.” That, my friends, is what I believe is our call as people of faith and disciples of Christ— to break down the walls of hostility and mistrust that exist between us for the purpose of coming together to heal our broken world and repair our fractured democracy.

Jesus was a healer. That was a big part of his identity. We take on that identity when we become Jesus’ disciples. We become partners in the work of healing our broken world. This is a call I think we need to take very seriously. But in order to do that, I think we need to somehow transcend our “small-i” identities that we have constructed for ourselves in order to embrace our ultimate identity as children of God. We need to unravel ourselves from our earthly tribes and allegiances in order to transcend our toxic ‘us vs them' politics and embrace a deeper allegiance to the one we call savior. Some of you may recall that I said something very similar to this the Sunday before the election. I said that God needed to unravel our politics because we’ve become overly identified—as a nation—with our partisan associations. I’m saying it again now, because I think it’s a message we can’t hear enough right now. But let me be clear— I think it’s fine to identify with a political party and to find a sense of belonging with like-minded people. There are healthy ways to do this. What I think is not fine, however, and what I think is not healthy for our spiritual well-being and for the well-being of the world, is to allow a political identity, or any other “small-i” identity, to supersede our “capital-I” identity as children of a loving God. What I think is not fine is to allow our political identity to lead us into divisive, us vs them rhetoric, and the demonization of our fellow siblings in Christ as this is in direct conflict with scripture, with Jesus’ own teachings, and with the teachings of the early church.

So how do we begin to repair the breach? The breach feels massive and it’s easy to feel powerless in the face of such intense division. Well, I don’t know about any of you, but I know that I have people in my own life, in my own family, even, who are on opposite sides of the political divide than myself. So I think maybe we have to start there. We have to start seeing each other again as fellow children of God. We have to start listening to and trusting each other again— believing that we are all doing the best we can and that we all have honorable intentions, even if we disagree sometimes. I think it’s crucial that we don’t let news media or politicians dictate how we see each other. We need to let our faith drive how we see other. And that means, we see each other as fellow children of God, who, at the end of the day, all have the same human wants and needs. The need to be safe. The deep desire to belong. The need to have access to clean water and health care. The need to have a home and put food on the table. Underneath all those “small-i” identities, we are all part of the one human family— all deserving of love, respect and dignity. Or maybe the work starts even more local than any of that—maybe it starts in our own hearts. Maybe we need to let our own anger and mistrust unravel. Maybe we need to engage in the somewhat de-centering act of letting go of our constructed, “small-i” identities— what Richard Rohr and others call the false self— so that we can be more fully alive as children of God.

Look, I know all of this is way easier said than done. I know plenty of people would call me naive for saying that we can reach out across the political divide in such a time as this. But I believe we have to try. I believe we are called to try. And I believe that in trying— in the words of Isaiah—“our light will rise in the darkness… and we shall be like a spring of water whose waters never fail.” I believe that in trying, we find our “capital-I” identity as repairers of the breach, children of God, and disciples of Christ. And that in leaning into that identity, not only do we become more fully alive, not only do we unravel our anger and mistrust and become generally more happy, less anxious people, but God is then glorified more fully through us and through our work. “The glory of God is the human being fully alive.”

So friends, let the unraveling happen. Do not be afraid of what you stand to lose, for indeed Jesus said we need to lose our lives in order to find them. Instead, lean into what you have to gain and what we all have to gain, which is a more just, compassionate and peaceful world. We can’t do it if we are working against each other. We can do it if we trust each other and see each other as kin. So let it all unravel and revel in that raveling, for what you will find amidst the scraps is nothing less than the very kingdom of God and your promised place within it. May it ever be so, Amen.

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